By Drew D. / June 9th, 2021
|Release Date||April 22, 2021|
|Genre||2D Action platformer, Real-time strategy|
|Platform||PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S|
Smelter is quite the unique experience, in which classic 2-D action platforming pairs with world-building real-time-strategy to produce something that plays and feels familiar, yet the idea itself is one I’ve never personally encountered. It both evokes classic tones and styles of the 16-bit era, while also attempting something new and innovative. A bold idea with clever execution, Smelter conveys impressive ambition, in the hopes of creating something both fun and truly unique.
Smelter begins with our heroine Eve, who, along with her partner, Adam, have just witnessed a cataclysm. The two are separated, with Adam seemingly swept up by the shock, and Eve plunged into the depths of the earth. Determined to reunite with Adam, Eve begins exploring and soon discovers Smelter, a divine creature who once ruled over a vast empire. With few other options, the two pair up, with Smelter serving as a sort of living armor for Eve and granting her new abilities in her quest to find Adam. Smelter, meanwhile, aids Eve for his own plans of reclaiming lost lands and rebuilding his once great kingdom.
The plot of Smelter is a fairly straightforward one, as Eve wishes to reunite with Adam, and Smelter wants to rebuild his empire. And with their individual needs forcing the pair into an alliance, we go from there. Given the 2-D action aspects of the game, I expected a straightforward plot, however, Smelter does offer a bit of depth to its story. Smelter himself is not all he seems, as he appears to be rather well known among various side characters and some of the major enemies encountered throughout the adventure. He seems to have a bit of history, which is slowly revealed through his interactions.
Unfortunately, aside from the minimal narrative world building and a plot twist or two, that’s all we really get for a story. Although names and places are discussed, they are hardly expanded upon for one to invest any attention. In fact, most of the narrative is simply there to guide players to their next task and provide shallow reasoning for playing on. Far too often, I simply found the narrative to be a distraction that broke play flow and slowed my experience down, an issue only further exacerbated by the RTS segments, which I’ll discuss later. It’s not all bad, as there’s plenty of humor in dialogue, and the parts of the story that actually told a bit of history or lore pertaining directly to Smelter or his bigger enemies were great, too. But all of that in-between which only serves to move the game along is what I could have utterly done without.
As for the characters, Smelter servers as both main character and narrator for this adventure, as this is very much his story. His snark and arrogance give him a touch of personality, which is more than can be said for any other character. In addition, it subtly hints at something more, which I applaud the effort for. He also has a dry sense of humor, which is exactly that; dry and uninspired. And that’s all we really get in terms of character development. Eve, though she has her own goal, is relegated to just a passenger along for the ride. Yes, she is portrayed as the silent, strong type, yet her actions and endeavors fall short in providing development or depth to her character in the ways we’ve seen for Metroid’s Samus. Although her strength is both noticeable and admirable, her stoic silence fails her. I believe the better parts of gameplay are when we control Eve, so why snub her regarding any attempt at depth for her character? I would have loved to have learned more about her; her personality, or better yet, the range of emotions she could be feeling throughout her harrowing journey. Instead, Smelter talks for her and, worse, often talks over her actions. Eve is a character that definitely needed to speak up for herself. Overall, I appreciate the efforts to offer a deeper story than the norm and I also appreciate the glimmers of character depth that Smelter receives. But the way Eve gets shafted, development wise, and the missteps in execution, make the narrative flaws difficult to ignore.
Moving on to gameplay, Smelter is a combination of action platforming and world-building real time strategy and the result, while intriguing, leaves me with a middling impression. Starting with its greatest strengths, Smelter’s action platforming takes cues from Metroidvania styles of gameplay, though I feel the gameplay is most similar to the SNES Mega Man X titles. Dashing, wall jumping, and switching to different combat and movement abilities on the fly, these segments of gameplay reminded me of the brilliance of the X titles, possessing similar degrees of fun, challenge, and creative brilliance as its predecessors. Here, Eve can swap between three elemental powers that alter her means of movement and attack, so depending on the situation, she may fight with earthen-clad fists, an electric whip, or fire projectiles. She may have a double jump available, can run up walls, or she can dash in midair, again, depending on the elemental currently equipped. Then, of course, there is Eve’s Smelt ability. Depicted as a hand of green energy that launches outwards, the Smelt ability can interact with a wide range of objects, from those found in the environments, to those used by enemies that can be turned against them. This interactivity, in turn, further augments Eve’s platforming and combat capabilities. Altogether, the range of abilities and means of attack provide some truly creative and impressive gameplay.
As for the action platforming’s execution, these stages do not disappoint. I appreciate the elemental qualities of attacks and how they play into enemy weaknesses. I also like the combat variety elementals bring, so that you’re never attacking in the same way for too long. It allows for a bit of strategy to combat, keeping play fresh and constantly flowing. As for the movement abilities, with them I was always encouraged to explore every inch of every stage in the hopes of discovering as many of the game’s hidden secrets as I could. These hidden upgrades are necessary to excel in the RTS segments of play, so having them in order to complete the RTS as quickly as possible and move on, was another motivation of mine. One of the only issues I could see some players having, are the time trials that are hidden within each stage. These time trials will test your play skills and mastery of a single elemental’s move set. You have unlimited attempts, but these tend to dance on the line between challenging and obnoxious. Having said that, all are doable with an acceptable level of patience and practice. The second, similar issue, is in regards to the boss fights. These, too, may take some practice, but conquering each is very satisfying. Other than those two potential points of frustration, Smelter’s action platforming is simply fantastic, offering plenty of fast-paced combat, solid challenge, loads of exploration opportunity, and the overall satisfying feel of accomplishment when you succeed.
On the flip side of Smelter’s gameplay, are the world-building real-time strategy segments. These occur on the overworld, in which you control Smelter directly to build up his Zirm army and empire. Building houses to increase troop numbers, erecting apple shrines to feed them, and placing ground and aerial attack outposts are the core components here. In order to expand territory, as well as to unlock each of the next action platforming stages, players will need to overcome a specific task or challenge. Holding and defending specific spots or eliminating enemy barricades, along with general defense and survival for a time, are the basic means of progress. Lastly, certain spots on the map possess new or upgraded abilities for Eve. And so, similar to Eve benefiting Smelter for his RTS, Smelter, in turn, influences Eve’s potential and further ties the two together both in plot and gameplay.
Where Eve’s action platforming segments are the strengths of gameplay, the RTS portions are unimpressive to the point of forgettable. Again, I realize and respect the developer’s attempts to achieve something unique by combining play styles and genres, but the result comes off as a mishmash. The interruption to play flow is significant, not seamless in the least, for the switch from high-paced action to RTS/simulation builder brings things to a screeching halt.
As for the RTS itself, other than the decisions as to where and when to build the four types of structures, there isn’t much in the way of strategy. Yes, structures can be torn down and replaced, houses can be upgraded, and the outposts can be given an elemental affinity to strengthen them against certain types of enemies. However, beyond that, the RTS segments are tiringly repetitive. In order to clear the challenges provided, it’s simply a matter of distancing houses and shrines while setting up outposts closer to the objectives and manning them. Also, outpost soldiers attack automatically, as in, you have zero control over them once the outpost is built and troops are assigned to them. And so, the RTS becomes a trial in patience as you learn the task du jour, increase troops, and build outposts close by said objectives until they’re cleared. Lastly, as for Smelter himself, although I do like that we get to control and attack with him during all of the automation, I nearly always felt that he was underpowered and thus never quite had any great impact on the outcome of battles. Overall, while I continue to applaud the attempts at genuine innovation with its inclusion, the RTS execution falls painfully flat, as there is no overlooking the lack of diverse tasks, the overly simplistic and automated mechanics, and the rinse and repeat feeling I had when playing.
As it has some impact on gameplay, I do wish to address Smelter’s build quality, and I will preface this by saying that, for the most part, play is a smooth and worry-free experience. Especially during the more nail-biting moments such as boss fights, the game runs without issue and focus can be given purely to play. My biggest gripe, however, are hang-ups during play. Needless to say, this is awful in a platformer that demands quick reactions and precise timing. Also, these hang-ups are unavoidable, most likely a Unity optimization issue, as they seem to occur outside of system specs and visual settings. They’re an uncommon occurrence, nearly limited to larger rooms with multiple enemies, yet they still happen and will do so just often enough to be a frustration. Not nearly as problematic, another issue is the brightness resetting itself. This occurred a total of four times for me, making my screen too dark. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix through the adjustable visual settings, accessible from the pause menu. A final issue, really more of a nitpick on my part, is that there are minor grammar mistakes and missing words throughout the narrative, yet the point always comes across. Yet, again, the issue that sticks out badly enough are the hang-ups. If there is ever a proper fix for it, then Smelter’s build quality would be near perfect. Having said that, as a whole, the build quality is satisfactory, allowing for a mostly unburdened play from title to end credits with only the occasional hang-up to deter from the experience.
Regarding my initial interest in Smelter, what first caught my eye were its aesthetics. A flashy intro cinematic paired with a soundtrack and 16-bit stylings straight out of the 90’s, Smelter had me with its opening presentation and held me until the very end. Visually, the game looks fantastic, with an imaginative set of enemy sprites, fearsome looking bosses, and impressive variation to Eve’s altering appearances. I like that each of her looks emphasize the elemental quality of her powers and mirror the fierceness of her own determination. Eve’s a badass, and her armors do well to match up with her style. I am also impressed with the environments and level designs. The variety of the locales is noteworthy, as they emphasize both the vastness and harshness of the world in which Eve must explore in her quest. Also, how the designs and styles of the visuals play into the platforming and exploration in each level is equally remarkable. My one wish regarding the visuals, however, would be the inclusion of more cinematics throughout the game. Smelter’s intro is pure energy and I would have loved more. As for the audio, it is every bit as impressive as the visuals. The soundtrack evokes that same style and level of energy as the 90’s action platformers it takes inspiration from. Each track fits its stage or event perfectly and does incredibly well to further emphasize the tones and moods that the action brings. Paired together, the visuals and audio enable satisfying immersion that is equal parts new and imaginative, as well as pure nostalgia. Simply put, the aesthetics impress and I very much hope to see more of a similar caliber from these developers.
Smelter is an impressive piece of ambition. The originality that comes with the pairing of 2-D action platforming and RTS is easily commended. The brilliance and execution of the action platforming stages is overwhelmingly impressive, so much so that they’re able to carry the game on their own. However, the flaws of the RTS segments of gameplay mar the experience, as does the overall disjointed feel of gameplay when transitioning from fast-paced action to the crawl that is the RTS. The weak story and shallow characters fail to help the effort, though the attempts at creating a history and having a plot twist or two are appreciated. Lastly, I will be impressed with Smelter’s visual aesthetics and soundtrack for a long time to come. The 20 USD price is fair for the near 15 hours of gameplay and I would only encourage the purchase further should that price ever drop. Despite its missteps, Smelter is still an easy recommendation for any fan looking for an energetic bit of challenging, yet fun, high-paced 2-D action platforming.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
16 bit2-DActionplatformerreal-time strategyReviewsRTSShooterSmelter